Sumatra Gayo Coffee: Stories About Aceh, With Pictures

Aceh has a distinct culture and history, and the culture of coffee farming expresses this…

The standard “History of Coffee in Indonesia” goes something like this. The Dutch sent coffee seeds to their colony in Batavia from India in the late 17th century, but it wasn’t until the coffee blight (leaf fungus) of the 1880s that they started planting it beyond the plantations of Java. So Sumatra did not have any coffee planted until the late 1880s when arabica seeds were planted in the cultural area of the Batak Mandailing, North Sumatra.

The spread of coffee is not often considered in relation to the brutal Aceh War of 1873-1904, although the brutality of the would-be colonizers, the Dutch, and the resistance movement existed before and well-after those years. The Dutch colony was near bankrupt funding their attempts, military and otherwise, to take Aceh under their rule, to consolidate their territory while warding off the British and French.

Aceh was rich in natural resources, namely a hugely valuable crop in black pepper. Coffee also filled the coffers of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and funded colonial domination, so bringing it to the less volatile Mandailing Batak area was a safe move.

But it was not a benevolent act. Coffee farming was enforced as a way for the colonized to pay their colonizers: their crop was delivered to the Dutch as a tax. And that funded the war against the Acehnese, the scorched-earth tactics of the Dutch including wholesale slaughter of villages, of noncombatants, of women and children.

I realize that’s a grim introduction to a travelogue about the joys of Aceh, and the wonderful coffee that can be found there. But I guess I feel it’s important to make note of the historical basis for the coffee crop in Sumatra, and recall that the history of coffee in not always pretty. Yes, we can still enjoy our coffee … but maybe with some context we will have a better conversation while doing so.

Acehnese and Gayo people are two distinct cultural and lingusitic groups living in the Aceh. In general the coffee was farmed by the highland Gayo people, while Aceh people were a more coastal group, traders and merchants. -Thompson

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